After controversy over his border patrol memoir, Francisco Cantú gets back to writing at Aspen Words residency
IF YOU GO …
Who: Francisco Cantú
Where: The Temporary at Willits
When: Tuesday, June 12, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: aspenwords.org
More info: Free copies of Cantú’s book ‘The Line Becomes a River’ are available at the Aspen Words office in the Red Brick Center.
After months at the center of unexpected controversy, nonfiction writer and translator Francisco Cantú is getting back to work during an Aspen Words residency.
“It’s a chance for me to get my head screwed back on straight, to refocus and ground myself for the next thing,” Cantú said last week on the lawn outside of the Red Brick Center in Aspen.
As the June writer-in-residence for the literary nonprofit, he’s spending the month at the Catto Shaw family’s Mojo Garden Farm in Woody Creek.
His memoir “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border” recounts his time as a U.S. Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012 in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas enforcing immigration policy he opposes. The book bears witness and details his role in government-sanctioned acts against migrants and explores the emotional toll it takes on him. A Mexican-American from Tucson, Cantú joined up at age 23 — over the objections of his family — to better understand and grapple with ugly realities of the border.
Published in February, the book earned acclaim for the Pushcart Prize-winning essayist and became a bestseller. It also inspired vociferous criticism from immigration activists, from the political left and from Mexican-Americans who called out Cantú for being complicit in the government’s inhumane policies and exploiting his work in a memoir. There have been heated protests at his readings and book signings along with calls for boycotts of the book.
“There’s been a pushback from people who say, ‘You’re part of the system and who are you to be profiting off of your work as a law enforcement agent who was responsible for capturing people and deporting them,’” Cantú said. “It’s been strange because a lot of that pushback comes from people I agree with and arguments that I agree with.”
His book tour inspired demonstrations in cities like Austin, where security reportedly escorted some protesters from a bookstore and where Cantú, in response, turned the microphone over to his opponents to hear them out.
“It’s strange to get passionate, heated pushback from people who you mostly agree with,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Yes, I think like that, too.’”
A New York Times story last month cataloged damning critiques writers, poets and immigrants have launched against Cantú’s book. Confronted with them, Cantú mostly agreed and encouraged the complex, unanticipated conversation his book has inspired about who gets to tell the story of the border.
“It surprised me in a lot of ways,” he said. “I was always anticipating a lot of backlash from the right — from ‘build the wall,’ ‘close the border’ type of people. I think an easy narrative to tell about me and this book is that I broke ranks or stepped out of line and told all of these secrets about the patrol and betrayed them.”
Some critics have read his depictions of his border patrol work as an endorsement or haven’t read the book at all. But Cantú is clear about his beliefs: “I’m pretty staunchly against our immigration policy. I think it’s a violent policy that has perpetuated death for decades and we haven’t grappled with it in an honest way as a nation.”
During his Aspen Words residency, Cantú is reflecting on and writing about the debate over “The Line Becomes a River.” He is at work on an afterword to be included in the paperback edition. The piece, he said, will discuss his memoir in the context of the ugly Trumpian political moment it fell into this spring, “to speak a little more directly to the current moment.”
Cantú did not expect to be cast as a villain in this moment. But he is hopeful the debate can be productive and that it might help raise up the voices of others, especially the perspectives of migrants themselves.
“I’ve arrived at this place where, if my book is providing an entry point to that conversation happening at a larger level — a conversation about whose voices we should be listening to and what narratives we should be subscribing to — then, honestly, I’m happy for my book to be the catalyst for that kind of conversation,” he said. “Even if I think it’s based on some misperceptions about the book.”
He blanches at hyperbolic praise for “The Line Becomes a River” that has called it “the best” or “the only” thing to read about the border right now.
“My perspective is inherently problematic, right?” he said. “This is the story of someone who had a lot of privilege and power over people. And I’ll be the first to say that I was complicit in perpetuating a deadly immigration policy that I’m staunchly opposed to.”
He finished the book in early 2016, before most considered Donald Trump a serious presidential candidate. As it moved toward publication and Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant platform drew support across the U.S., Cantú opted not to revise “The Line Becomes a River” with the perspective of Trump’s campaign.
“I always imagined this book would be coming out in a world where it would be a relic of this uglier time,” he said.
The afterword he is writing in Woody Creek is an opportunity to reflect on the book in the context of the Trump era and the current battles over U.S. immigration policy.
“The idea is to speak more directly to the politics and rhetoric that we’re seeing right now,” he said. “Literature about the border can’t exist outside of that. … It’s something you can’t ignore.”
Since February, Cantú has been in a near constant state of motion — traveling and talking about his book, doing daily interviews and fielding media requests. What he hasn’t been doing is writing. And that’s what he’s doing this month, when his only public obligation is a talk at The Temporary at Willits on Tuesday.
Along with the afterword for “The Line Becomes a River,” Cantú said he’ll be translating a few short essays while he’s here and doing some early work on essays he’s been mulling but hasn’t had a moment to work on since the explosive of his memoir.
“Yesterday was the first time that I’ve even sat down to write notes,” he said with a laugh Thursday. “I had some handwritten notes I’d taken early this year. I haven’t even put them into the computer. I haven’t done any writing whatsoever since February.”
For a diligent writer with a daily composition practice, the grind of the book tour and national media attention has been a shock to the system. Writing in the quiet of the mountains is a more familiar setting. He wrote much of “The Line Becomes a River” in a small trailer he has parked on a plot of land his mother owns in northern Arizona, in an area even more remote than the wilderness-adjacent plot in Woody Creek where he’s spending the month.
“I already have a habit of finding solitude,” Cantú said.
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The annual budget-friendly and hyper-local “Small Wonders” holiday art sale opens Friday at the Aspen Chapel Gallery, with COVID-19 restrictions in place. Local artists are also in the spotlight at the Red Brick Center’s resident artists show.